Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

III. The Hasheesh Eater

When, in the "Song to Old Union," today's graduates sing that "the brook that bounds through Union's grounds / Gleams bright as the Delphic water..." they probably do not realize that they may very well be commemorating drug-induced states of vision, in which this bounding brook became alternatingly the Nile and the Styx according to the nature of the hallucinations.

Early in his college years, probably during the spring of 1854, Fitz Hugh's medical curiosity drew him to visit his "friend Anderson the apothecary" regularly. During these visits, Ludlow "made upon myself the trial of the effects of every strange drug and chemical which the laboratory could produce."

A few months before, Bayard Taylor's Putnam's Magazine article "The Vision of Hasheesh" had been devoured by Ludlow. It contained these inviting words about the effects of the mysterious drug of the East:

The sense of limitation - of the confinement of our senses within the bounds of our own flesh and blood - instantly fell away. The walls of my frame were burst outward and tumbled into ruin; and, without thinking what form I wore - losing sight even of all idea of form - I felt that I existed throughout a vast extent of space. The blood, pulsed from my heart, sped through uncounted leagues before it reached my extremities; the air drawn into my lungs expanded into seas of limpid ether, and the arch of my skull was broader than the vault of heaven. Within the concave that held my brain, were the fathomless deeps of blue; clouds floated there, and the winds of heaven rolled them together, and there shone the orb of the sun. It was - though I thought not of that at the time - like a revelation of the mystery of omnipresence. It is difficult to describe this sensation, or the rapidity with which it mastered me. In the state of mental exaltation in which I was then plunged, all sensations, as they rose, suggested more or less coherent images. They presented themselves to me in a double form: one physical, and therefore to a certain extent tangible; the other spiritual, and revealing itself in a succession of splendid metaphors....
Taylor's account bore many similarities to Ludlow's later visions, and had a similar format to The Hasheesh Eater - visions of heaven, visions of hell, and the obligatory warning (a sort of "Don't try this at home, kids") placed so as to gently contradict the enthusiastic tone of the rest of the narrative. This is the warning Ludlow disregarded, as his warnings would later be disregarded:
I have here faithfully and fully written out my experience, on account of the lesson which it may convey to others. If I have unfortunately failed in my design, and have but awakened that restless curiosity which I have endeavored to forestall, let me beg all who are thereby led to repeat the experiment upon themselves, that they be content to take the portion of hasheesh which is considered sufficient for one man, and not, like me, swallow enough for six.
So Ludlow became a "hasheesh eater," taking heroic doses of cannabis extract (up to an eighth of an ounce) regularly throughout his college years. Just as in his youth he found to his delight that he could from the comfort of his couch adventure along with the words of authors, he found that with hasheesh "[t]he whole East, from Greece to farthest China, lay within the compass of a township; no outlay was necessary for the journey. For the humble sum of six cents I might purchase an excursion ticket over all the earth; ships and dromedaries, tents and hospices were all contained in a box of Tilden's extract" (this reminiscent of DeQuincey's discovery that opium was "happiness that may be purchased for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket; the portable ecstasies which may be had corked up in a pint bottle; and the peace of mind that can be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach.").

Furthermore, he found the drug to be a boon to his creativity: "[M]y pen glanced presently like lightning in the effort to keep neck and neck with my ideas," he writes at one point, although, "[a]t last, thought ran with such terrific speed that I could no longer write at all."

His experiences, adventures, insights, and conclusions regarding hashish are explained nowhere better than in the text of The Hasheesh Eater, so they will be but glossed over here.

Although he later grew to think of hashish as a product of "the very witch-plant of hell, the weed of madness" and his involvement with it as unwise, "[w]herein I was wrong I was invited by a mother's voice.... The motives for the hasheesh-indulgence were of the most exalted ideal nature, for of this nature are all its ecstasies and its revelations - yes, and a thousand-fold more terrible, for this very reason, its unutterable pangs. I yielded, moreover, without realizing to what. Within a circle of one hundred miles' radius there was not a living soul who knew or could warn me of my danger."

For a time he seemed never to be out from under the influence of hashish. "[L]ife became with me one prolonged state of hasheesh exaltation..." he wrote, and noted that "the effect of every successive indulgence grows more perduring until the hitherto isolated experiences become tangent to each other; then the links of the delirium intersect, and at last so blend that the chain has become a continuous band.... The final months... are passed in one unbroken yet checkered dream." He concluded:

"Hasheesh is indeed an accursed drug, and the soul at last pays a most bitter price for all its ecstasies; moreover, the use of it is not the proper means of gaining any insight, yet who shall say that at that season of exaltation I did not know things as they are more truly than ever in the ordinary state?.... In the jubilance of hashish, we have only arrived by an improper pathway at the secret of that infinity of beauty which shall be beheld in heaven and earth when the veil of the corporeal drops off, and we know as we are known."
In Ludlow's endeavor to end his "addiction" to hashish we today are puzzled. After all, the intoxicating chemicals in marijuana and hashish are not considered addictive in the strict sense of the word, and are only thought to be habit-forming in the same way that tennis, ice cream, or soap operas can be said to be habit-forming. Yet Ludlow was utterly sincere in his description of the horrors of withdrawal, even adding that "[i]f, from a human distaste of dwelling too long upon the horrible, I have been led to speak so lightly of the facts of this part of my experience that any man may think the returning way of ascent an easy one, and dare the downward road of ingress, I would repair the fault with whatever of painfully-elaborated prophecy of wretchedness may be in my power, for through all this time I was indeed a greater sufferer than any bodily pain could possibly make me."

Ludlow's account was probably flavored by the account of opium addiction which formed the model for his book: Thomas DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. But Ludlow's "addiction" is curiously missing signs of physical withdrawal symptoms - terrible nightmares are about the worst symptom he specifies. He takes up tobacco smoking to help him through his "suffering," but this suffering seems mostly to be from disappointment at the dreary colors and unfantastic drudgery of day-to-day life, rather than from any physical pain (ironically, his incipient nicotine addiction may have been the real source of any physical suffering he experienced; he writes at one point that "to defer for an hour the nicotine indulgence was to bring on a longing for the cannabine which was actual pain."):

The very existence of the outer world seemed a base mockery, a cruel sham of some remembered possibility which had been glorious with a speechless beauty. I hated flowers, for I had seen the enameled meads of Paradise; I cursed the rocks because they were mute stone, the sky because it rang with no music; and the earth and sky seemed to throw back my curse....

It was not the ecstasy of the drug which so much attracted me, as its power of disenthrallment from an apathy which no human aid could utterly take away.

He was teased repeatedly in this by flashbacks which gave him glimpses of the hashish universe occasionally, only to pull back just as quickly, returning him to the mundane world. His grayed-over universe he sought with some success to remedy philosophically, by trying to logically discover in the workings of nature "a spirit which works throughout all creation, by which the most microscopic plant-filament, no less than the grandest mountain, is inwrought and informed."

Perhaps the most poignant remedy he described for the dullness of the world around him was blowing soap-bubbles:

Yes, throwing down the wand of professional majesty, degrading myself to the level of the most callow neophyte of an infant class, did I take up the pipe, and, going into the presence of the nearest sunbeam (a course which, by the way, might well be followed by those who for their light go farther and fare worse), did I create sphere after sphere, not, as the grotesquely but unintentionally blasphemous old poet hath it, snapping them off my fingers into space, but with careful hand taking rest over the back of a chair to counteract the tremulousness of over-anxiety not to tremble, did I inflate them to the maximum, and then sit wrapped up in gazing at their luxuriant sheen until they broke. There I found some faint actualization of my remembered hasheesh-sky, and where the actual failed there did the ideal, thus stimulated, come in to complete the vision. Had time allowed me, I could have consumed hours in watching the sliding, the rich intermingling, the changes by origination, and the changes by reaction of those matchless hues, or hues at least so matchless in the real world that to find their parallel we must leave the glories of a waking life, and go floating through the firmament of some iridescent dream. Verily, he who would be meet for the participation in any joys must robe himself in humility and become as a little child.
He says in The Hasheesh Eater that through the drug, "I had caught a glimpse through the chinks of my earthly prison of the immeasurable sky which should one day overarch me with unconceived sublimity of view, and resound in my ear with unutterable music."

This glimpse would haunt him for the rest of his days. A poem, undated and untitled, preserved in his sister's notebook, reads in part: "I stand as one who from a dungeon dream / Of open air and the free arch of stars / Waking to things that be from things that seem / Beats madly on the bars. // I am not yet quite used to be aware / That all my labor & my hope had birth / Only to freeze me with the coffined share / Of void & soulless earth."

The Hasheesh Eater itself (along with "The Apocalypse of Hasheesh," which was published, like Bayard Taylor's earlier sketch, in Putnam's, and which was an earlier attempt to put Ludlow's experience on paper) was written on the advice of his physician during his withdrawal.

He had difficulty, of course, in finding words to describe his experiences: "In the hasheesh-eater a virtual change of worlds has taken place... Truth has not become expanded, but his vision has grown telescopic; that which others see only as the dim nebula, or do not see at all, he looks into with a penetrating scrutiny which distance, to a great extent, can not evade.... To his neighbor in the natural state he turns to give expression to his visions, but finds that to him the symbols which convey the apocalypse to his own mind are meaningless, because, in our ordinary life, the thoughts which they convey have no existence; their two planes are utterly different."

Still, he made the attempt, trying on the one hand to make a moral or practical point that "the soul withers and sinks from its growth toward the true end of its being beneath the dominance of any sensual indulgence" and on the other to map out the territory of hashish intoxication like an explorer of a new continent: "If I shall seem to have fixed the comparative positions of even a few outposts of a strange and rarely-visited realm, I shall think myself happy."

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